Unlike the Broncos, Denver’s art scene has had a championship year.
For me, the lingua franca of the art world is the exhibition: Art cannot fully function if it’s not put on public display somewhere. This was a remarkable year for shows in metro Denver, and narrowing the number of exhibits worthy of note down to just a dozen wasn’t easy. So this list is dedicated not only to those shows that made the final cut, but to all the hardworking artists and curators in town who put their best out there, 52 weeks a year.
Here are the top twelve exhibits in 2018, in the order in which they were reviewed.
Carlos Frésquez: Sangre Colorado
MSUD Center for Visual Art
A sweeping career survey, Carlos Frésquez: Sangre Colorado celebrated a master of the Chicano art movement in Colorado. This truly ambitious endeavor was ably curated by Center for Visual Art director Cecily Cullen, and the stunning show took viewers from Frésquez’s earliest, classic pieces through his transition to conceptual art in the form of post-Chicano work. Always political, Frésquez’s “Chicano Power”-themed pieces took on a new relevance in the age of Trump’s border wall.
This spectacular group exhibit marked the tenth anniversary of the founding of RedLine by Laura Merage. Curated by Cortney Lane Stell, the show took over both the enormous main gallery and the large-ish community gallery, and included works by most of the many resource and resident artists who’d come through RedLine during the preceding decade. In the process, it revealed what a major contribution RedLine has made to the visual culture of Denver.
Suchitra Mattai: Sweet Asylum
The idea-rich Suchitra Mattai: Sweet Asylum at K Contemporary (named Best New Gallery in the Best of Denver 2018) was dominated by installations and mixed-media paintings that explored the artist’s ethnic identity as a descendant of Indian indentured servants in Guyana, a former British colony. In Mattai’s contemporary pieces, traditional Indian motifs collide with English ones. The K Contemporary show represented the first iteration of the ideas showcased in Sugar Bound, Mattai’s mammoth solo at the CVA mounted a few months later, which would also rate as one of the best shows of the year.
Pixelated: Sculpture by Mike Whiting
Denver Botanic Gardens
There’s no better place for an outdoor sculpture show than the gorgeous grounds of the Denver Botanic Gardens, which is where the magical Pixelated: Sculpture by Mike Whiting was on view this past spring and summer. Curated by Jen Tobias, the show spotlighted Whiting’s simple, geometric representations of such things as a bird, a deer and a cactus. The hard edges of his Pac Man-like steel shapes provided the perfect counterpoint to the softness of all that landscaping.
Kristen Hatgi Sink: Milk
In this enchanting photo show at Gildar Gallery, milk and its blinding whiteness conveyed a variety of metaphors. The color white is loaded with meaning, and Denver artist Kristen Hatgi Sink used it to represent not only positive associations such as purity and innocence, but also the negative associations that white invariably has in relation to colonialism and racial superiority. The results were thought-provoking and eye-catching.
Jeffrey Gibson: Like a Hammer
Denver Art Museum
Despite firing on only half its cylinders while the Ponti building is shut down for renovation, the Denver Art Museum has presented major shows back to back this year. The most remarkable was Jeffrey Gibson: Like a Hammer, curated by John Lukavic. Gibson creates sometimes gender-bending pieces using the powwow aesthetic of bangles, beads, jingles and fringe. For his punching bags, he “dressed” the macho equipment in feminine drag, creating unforgettable if subversive impressions.
Danae Falliers/Re:Union and Brenda Biondo/Moving Pictures
Goodwin Fine Art
In response to New Territory, the DAM’s look at contemporary landscape photography, nearby Goodwin Fine Art presented a dynamic duo of shows on the same topic, Danae Falliers/Re:Union and Brenda Biondo/Moving Pictures. Both artists take photos of the actual landscape and then turn them into color-field abstractions — Falliers via digital manipulation, Biondo by taking photos of photos. Sadly, this was one of the gallery’s last big shows; Goodwin closed up shop at the end of the year.
In Sight On Site
Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities
The Arvada Center’s Collin Parson came up with the inspired idea of inviting artists who usually paint the outside of buildings to instead paint the center’s inside walls. The result was the eye-dazzling In Sight On Site, which showed off a range of current street-art styles. The exhibit included a who’s-who of Denver’s mural scene, including Thomas “Detour” Evans, Anthony Garcia Sr., Jaime Molina, Sandra Fettingis, Daniel Crosier and many, many others, all of whom painted pieces just for this show.
Welded & Fabricated Poetry: The Artistic Life of Elizabeth Yanish Shwayder
Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art
The first solo in the Kirkland Museum’s new building, the elegant Welded & Fabricated Poetry: The Artistic Life of Elizabeth Yanish Shwayder, is a toast to a legendary mid-century sculptor. Elizabeth Shwayder, who is in her nineties, created her classic abstract style in the ’60s and ’70s, though she’s been a serious artist since the 1950s. Curated by Hugh Grant and Chris Herron, the still-open show has more than fifty pieces and is the largest exhibit ever dedicated to Shwayder’s work. It's open until early January.
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John Buck: New and Recent Work
LoDo’s Robischon Gallery always serves up museum-quality shows, and that was never more obvious than when John Buck: New and Recent Work was on view there this fall. The dazzling display started with one of Buck’s mechanized installations, “The March of Folly,” conflating ancient Greek myths with current events, complete with carved wooden effigies of Putin, Trump, the Laocoön and Stormy Daniels, among others. The show also included some of Buck’s marvelous smaller sculptures, his luxuriously done prints, and another machine.
Emilio Lobato: Retro-Spectacle: 25 Years of Painting & Prints
William Havu Gallery
Emilio Lobato was included in the first show at William Havu’s custom-designed gallery in the Golden Triangle two decades ago. For the Havu Gallery’s twentieth anniversary, the solo Emilio Lobato: Retro-Spectacle: 25 Years of Painting & Prints shone a spotlight on the Denver artist’s signature geometric abstractions, their forms and colors reflecting his childhood in the San Luis Valley. Just as impressive as the show’s content was the fact that it marked owner Havu’s 45th year in the art-show business in Colorado.
Tara Donovan: Fieldwork
MCA curator Nora Burnett Abrams took over all three floors of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver to stage the memorable Tara Donovan: Fieldwork. The Brooklyn-based Donovan uses mundane materials, such as drinking straws and roofing tarpaper, to create installations and wall pieces that conjoin conceptualism, abstraction and the landscape. The entire display is enchanting, particularly in the way that Donovan has been able to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. And not only is this one of the best shows of 2018, but it will continue into January 2019.